The Kilifi Health and Demographic Surveillance System (KHDSS), located on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, was established in 2000 as a record of births, pregnancies, migration events and deaths and is maintained by 4-monthly household visits. The study area was selected to capture the majority of patients admitted to Kilifi District Hospital. The KHDSS has 260 000 residents and the hospital admits 4400 paediatric patients and 3400 adult patients per year. At the hospital, morbidity events are linked in real time by a computer search of the population register. Linked surveillance was extended to KHDSS vaccine clinics in 2008. KHDSS data have been used to define the incidence of hospital presentation with childhood infectious diseases (e.g. rotavirus diarrhoea, pneumococcal disease), to test the association between genetic risk factors (e.g. thalassaemia and sickle cell disease) and infectious diseases, to define the community prevalence of chronic diseases (e.g. epilepsy), to evaluate access to health care and to calculate the operational effectiveness of major public health interventions (e.g. conjugate Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine). Rapport with residents is maintained through an active programme of community engagement. A system of collaborative engagement exists for sharing data on survival, morbidity, socio-economic status and vaccine coverage.